Northerners get to work on growing food locally

Northerners get to work on growing food locally
Kirsten Bradley shows kids at Aboriginal Head Start how much their plants have grown.Photos: Meagan Wohlberg.

Northerners get to work on growing food locally

Getting a headstart on gardening

Preschoolers at Aboriginal Head Start in Fort Smith are getting a hands-on introduction to growing and caring for vegetables, thanks to the green thumb of Ecology North’s local food production programmer Kirsten Bradley.

The little gardeners are off to a good start for this year’s harvest, already showing off a  bounty of carrots, peas, beans, radishes and the like, which they water and measure every week to see how much they’ve grown.

The measurements are then charted on the wall so the kids can see exactly how big their bean and peas are sprouting up each week.

Bradley said the project is a fun way to educate the kids about producing their own food, and is fun for her too.

“This is the cutest project I’ve ever done,” she said.

Bradley is currently organizing local food production workshops in Fort Smith as part of an joint health and environment initiative to improve the health and well-being of Northerners.

Preschooler Lisa helps to measure their tallest bean plant.

Photo: Meagan Wohlberg

Preschooler Lisa helps to measure their tallest bean plant.

Permaculture: a growing solution

From rising prices to fresh food shortages, getting a healthy meal in the North can be a challenge. But many of the challenges faced by Northerners when it comes to food security could be solved by a refocus on local food production, according to the experts at Ecology North.

“In the North we’re particularly vulnerable because we are on such a long supply chain when it comes to the food system, so developing self-sustaining systems here is very important,” said Susie Wegernoski, a permaculture specialist.

Wegernoski, a community adult educator with Aurora College in Fort Resolution, was recently hired by Ecology North to provide workshops in communities throughout the South Slave to encourage people to grow and find their food locally, from gardening and harvesting wildlife to foraging for wild plants.

The workshops are part of an initiative guided by funding for Aboriginal health that seek to improve dietary health among people in the North. But Kirsten Bradley, who is coordinating the Fort Smith workshop, said the benefits of local food production go well beyond healthy eating.

“Locally-produced foods tend to be whole foods. Growing your own vegetables and fruits, or hunting for wild meat, is far healthier for individuals than eating processed foods,” she said. “And most of the food that we eat in the North has been shipped from very far away and some of it is even shipped on airplanes, so the environmental impact of that food is very high. So the more food that we can grow at home, it really has three impacts: it improves the environment, it improves our own health, and food can be very expensive here as well, so growing your own food has financial benefits as well.”

Still, with shorter growing seasons in the North – despite a great deal of sunlight in the summer – simply going from zero to 100 per cent in terms of growing our own food can be difficult. That’s why Wegernoski is attempting to bring her “start small” model of local food production to people in the NWT.

Permaculture, a system of self-sustaining food production, models itself on replicating nature. Gardeners start by observing the way ecosystems work naturally and finding ways to use those natural systems to produce and track down food efficiently, which can include growing vegetables, foraging for wild foods and hunting, trapping and fishing wild animals.

“The systems that create their own fertility, where you can do things like seed saving where there doesn’t have to be a lot of input in terms of energy or petrochemical resources or anything else – permaculture allows that to happen,” said Wegernoski.

Ultimately, what results is a form of producing food that’s better for people and the planet, said Wegernoski. By observing the patterns of nature and applying those to growing food, people can avoid many of the problems currently plaguing the industrial food system, such as insects and weeds, which subsequently require the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides.

“In a balanced ecological system, if one thing gets out of balance, everything maintains a level of homeostasis,” she said.

While no one is going to become an expert on permaculture overnight, Wegernoski said the system allows one to start small and gradually build up.

“Whatever change you make is a change for the positive – you’re going in the right direction,” she said. “But in terms of food production, easily within one season – if you have a small plot of land that you’re able to access – there would be absolutely nothing stopping you from feeding yourself for a good part of the year from that land.”

In the end, if done right, a permaculture design can become so self-sustaining that the burdensome tasks faced by conventional gardeners start to disappear.

“They say ‘the designer becomes the recliner’ because as time goes on and the system matures, there’s less and less that you have to do other than manage the system and harvest the system,” said Wegernoski.

Wegernoski will be giving two free Introduction to Permaculture workshops this weekend at the Northern Life Museum in Fort Smith. To register, contact Kirsten at 872-2847.

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